Seth Pollak

Seth Pollak, PhD

PhD, University of Rochester
Faculty Core Director, Clinical Translational Core
Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Professor of Pediatrics


Contact Information:

Waisman Center
1500 Highland Avenue
Madison, WI 53705
Lab Website: Child Emotion Laboratory

Research Statement

Research projects in our lab are focused upon children's emotional development and the relationship between early emotional experience and child psychopathology. We are particularly interested in understanding two related aspects of emotional development:

  • What are the mechanisms of normal emotional development?
  • To what extent are emotions shaped by nature and nurture?
  • Does it make sense to try and separate biology and experience?
  • How are emotions related to the development of psychopathology in children?
  • Might the development of emotional processes help explain the link between people's early experiences and later development of psychological difficulties?

We are currently pursuing multiple lines of research involving neuroplasticity and psychopathology:

Cognitive and biological aspects of typical emotional development:
Several projects explore the processes and patterns of functional specializations of emotion processing in "normal" children aged 3 - 12 years. Our empirical work always begins with samples of typically developing children. These studies then serve as the point of departure for our studies of neuroplasticiy, atypical development, and risk for psychopathology. Ongoing projects include studies of the processing of faces, emotion recognition and perception, memory for emotion, and regulation of emotional states. This approach provides a basic understanding of the architecture and origins of emotion systems/processes.

The effects of child maltreatment on emotion processes and risk for psychopathology:
A central problem in examining any behavior where nature-nurture interactions are suspected involves the manipulation of these two sources of variance. We use behavioral and psychophysiological measures to study children who have had different kinds of emotional experiences in order to assess the degree to which biological biases in cerebral development depend upon and can be modified by input from the environment. Studies of emotion processing in maltreated children suggest that certain aspects of emotional development are influenced by experience. These include the perception of cues representing threat and the regulation of attention to certain aspects of emotion. These results imply that some neural systems are more modifiable by (and dependent upon) early sensory experience than are others. Using several different experimental approaches, we are exploring the mechanisms that link early emotional experiences with heightened risk for the development of psychopathology.

Early social deprivation and children's ability to regulate emotion:
This research project deals with the immediate and compelling human needs of children who have been adopted from orphanages in Romania, Russia, and the Ukraine. These children are at a heightened risk for a number of emotional and behavioral difficulties. However, little is known about the development of children who have endured the kind of psychological neglect that is common in many of these orphanages. Because of such early aberrant caregiving environments (including a failure to meet the children's social and emotional needs) the study of these children will provide an opportunity to explore major scientific questions about the role of early experiences in emotional development of children. We are particularly interested in the underlying mechanisms that link the relationship between early experience and the pervasive behavioral and emotional difficulties affecting many of these children. In addition to working directly with post-institutionalized children and their parents, the project will involve a number of outreach and community service aspects. Support groups for families will be organized and maintained, and workshops will be developed specifically for educators and clinical professionals working with these children.

Work in our laboratory is supported by the The Jane Bradley Pettit Foundation, National Institutes of Mental Health, National Down Syndrome Society, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Representative Publications

Leitzke BT, Pollak SD. (2016) Developmental changes in the primacy of facial cues for emotion recognition. Developmental Psychology. 52(4):572-81. doi: 10.1037/a0040067.

Hanson JL, Nacewicz BM, Sutterer MJ, Cayo AA, Schaefer SM, Rudolph KD, Shirtcliff EA, Pollak SD, Davidson RJ. (2015) Behavioral Problems After Early Life Stress: Contributions of the Hippocampus and Amygdala. Biological Psychiatry. 15;77(4):314-23. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2014.04.020.

Dismukes AR, Shirtcliff EA, Hanson JL, Pollak SD. (2015) Context influences the interplay of endocrine axes across the day. Developmental Psychobiology. 57(6):731-41. doi: 10.1002/dev.21331.

Leitzke BT, Hilt LM, Pollak SD. (2015) Maltreated youth display a blunted blood pressure response to an acute interpersonal stressor. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology. 44(2):305-13. doi: 10.1080/15374416.2013.848774.

Chung MK, Hanson JL, Ye J, Davidson RJ, Pollak SD. (2015) Persistent Homology in Sparse Regression and Its Application to Brain Morphometry. IEEE Transactions on Medical Imaging. 34(9):1928-39. doi: 10.1109/TMI.2015.2416271.

Hair NL, Hanson JL, Wolfe BL, Pollak SD. (2015) Association of Child Poverty, Brain Development, and Academic Achievement. JAMA Pediatrics. 1;169(9):822-9. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.1475..

Romens SE, McDonald J, Svaren J, Pollak SD. (2015) Associations Between Early Life Stress and Gene Methylation in Children. Child Development. 86(1):303-9. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12270.

Pollak SD. (2015) Developmental psychopathology: recent advances and future challenges. World Psychiatry. 14(3):262-9. doi: 10.1002/wps.20237..

Strang NM, Pollak SD. (2014) Developmental continuity in reward-related enhancement of cognitive control. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience. 10:34-43. doi: 10.1016/j.dcn.2014.07.005.

Roeber BJ, Gunnar MR, Pollak SD. (2014) Early deprivation impairs the development of balance and bilateral coordination. Developmental Psychobiology. 56(5):1110-8. doi: 10.1002/dev.21159.

Shackman JE, Pollak SD. (2014) Impact of physical maltreatment on the regulation of negative affect and aggression. Development and Psychopathology. 26(4 Pt 1):1021-33. doi: 10.1017/S0954579414000546.

Seltzer LJ, Ziegler T, Connolly MJ, Prososki AR, Pollak SD. (2013) Stress-Induced Elevation of Oxytocin in Maltreated Children: Evolution, Neurodevelopment, and Social Behavior. Child Development. In Press.

Loman MM, Johnson AE, Westerlund A, Pollak SD, Nelson CA, Gunnar MR. (2013) The effect of early deprivation on executive attention in middle childhood. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry. 54(1):37-45.

Hilt LM, Pollak SD. (2013) Characterizing the ruminative process in young adolescents. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology. 42(4):519-30.

Hanson JL, Adluru N, Chung MK, Alexander AL, Davidson RJ, Pollak SD. (2013) Early Neglect Is Associated With Alterations in White Matter Integrity and Cognitive Functioning. Child Development. 84(5):1566-78.

Hanson JL, Hair N, Shen DG, Shi F, Gilmore JH, Wolfe BL, and Pollak SD. (2013) Family Poverty Affects the Rate of Human Infant Brain Growth. PLoS ONE. 8(12): e80954.

Desmarais C, Roeber BJ, Smith ME, Pollak SD. (2012) Sentence comprehension in postinstitutionalized school-age children. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research. Feb;55(1):45-54.

Hilt LM, Pollak SD. (2012) Getting out of rumination: comparison of three brief interventions in a sample of youth. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. 40(7):1157-65.

Romens SE, Pollak SD. (2012) Emotion regulation predicts attention bias in maltreated children at-risk for depression. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Feb;53(2):120-7.

Roeber BJ, Tober CL, Bolt DM, Pollak SD. (2012) Gross motor development in children adopted from orphanage settings. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology. Mar 13..

Seltzer LJ, Prososki AR, Ziegler TE, Pollak SD. (2012) Instant messages vs. speech: hormones and why we still need to hear each other. Evolution and Human Behavior. Jan;33(1):42-45.

Hanson JL, Chung MK, Avants BB, Shirtcliff EA, Gee JC, Davidson RJ, Pollak SD. (2010) Early stress is associated with alterations in the orbitofrontal cortex: a tensor-based morphometry investigation of brain structure and behavioral risk. Journal of Neuroscience. Jun 2;30(22):7466-72.